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What is the Purpose of Dog Whiskers?

Picture of of a old boxer dog

What is the purpose of your dog’s whiskers?  That is, of course, besides making your face tickle when she gives you those sloppy kisses?

These “whiskers”, officially called “vibrissae”1 (from the Latin word “vibrio” meaning “to vibrate”) are a vital part of a dog’s communication with her environment. According to Dr. Stanley Coren, 40% of all her tactile experiences2 from her environment are registered from the information received from the highly innervated sensory nerves in the hair follicles of her facial area.  For comparison, in humans, our most highly sensitive areas are our lips and our fingertips.

Each set of those longer, coarser, thicker hairs is placed on the face in a unique location, for a particular purpose.  The vibrissae on the left and right sides of her muzzle, the mystacial whiskers, provide feedback on what is near, or immediately beside her face.  Those are augmented by the genal whiskers located at the backside of her cheek, where her face naturally widens.  These two sets co-operate and tell her brain whether the hole she is digging or the tunnel she is exploring is narrowing around her, and whether there is a possibility that her head (and body) would get stuck.  This feature is particularly important when we are talking about the “go-to-ground” or “earth dogs” like the Jack Russell Terrier or the Dachshund, who actually go down the hole after a prey.  The whiskers above her eyes, the supraorbital whiskers, serve to protect her eyes.  If “something” touches them, causing the hair to vibrate and the message to be sent to the brain, it triggers a blinking reflex, and her eyelids close.  The possibility then of her eye being poked, or a foreign body being lodged in the eye are decreased.  Under her chin is a slightly raised “spot” from which protrudes the final set of whiskers, the interramal tufts.  On some dogs, these can be unusually elongated.  The purpose?  Well, they hang down, away from the face and are designed to provide information about what is under the face, like a food bowl, the ground (when sniffing), or the water surface in a lake (when the dog is swimming) so that the Labrador retriever knows to keep her head elevated and out of the water.  And what is really neat is that in situations with low light, she can still use all of these whiskers as a unit to detect objects in her environment that her sight may not discern.  “How does she do that?”  you ask.  Well, I am so glad that you did (ask, that is).  These vibrissae are so sensitive that they can monitor the surroundings and provide feedback to CoCo’s brain to assist with the calculation of the size, shape and speed of objects near her by being affected by the wind currents that blow by her.  Pretty amazing stuff!!

Another aspect of the whiskers is another “protective” feature.  According to LiveScience.com3,

if a dog is feeling threatened or anticipates a combative situation, she will reflexively flare her whiskers and then point them forward.  A show or bravado perhaps, to make her appear bigger or fiercer?  Check it out the next time that your Rover meets a strange dog.

So, back to the face-tickle associated with the sloppy kisses.  To trim or not to trim, that is the question.   From the evolutionary perspective of the canine species, they “came with the equipment” and have thrived because of the natural functioning of the whiskers-nerve-brain complex.  If you, the owner/caregiver, decide to cut the whiskers, just know that you are short-circuiting that communication.  Yes, they will grow back eventually, but in the meantime you have deliberately compromised her efforts to move and function in her environment by tampering with her spatial awareness.  Is that really appropriate, just to escape a tickle or two?

References:

  1. Dr. Mary Fuller, DVM, http://www.vetstreet.com/our-pet-experts/whats-the-deal-with-whiskers, 23 May, 2012
  2. “5 fascinating facts about dog whiskers”, https://dogdiscoveries.com/dog-whiskers/
  3. “Why Do Dogs Have Whiskers?”, Elizabeth Palermo, Associate Editor, https://www.livescience.com/4444824-why-dogs-have-whiskers.html

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